Arduous Road Awaits Kentucky in East Region

It doesn’t appear the 59-6 Golden State Warriors of the NBA are allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. 

In Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s eyes, that’s the only break Kentucky got when it learned its NCAA Tournament draw Sunday afternoon. 

“This is how it is. It’s every year the same,” Coach Cal said. “You look at some other teams, they got a great path and we’ve got this. I bet you they’ll try to switch over and put the Warriors in there. I don’t know if they can make a late call, but we’re playing. Let’s show up.”

Kentucky (25-8), fresh off winning its league-leading 29th Southeastern Conference Tournament with an 82-77 overtime victory over Texas A&M, is the No. 4 seed in the East Region, and will play No. 13-seed Stony Brook in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday.

The winner of that game will face either the Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana Hoosiers, which earned a No. 5 seed, or 12th-seeded Chattanooga of the Southern Conference. The regional’s No. 1 seed is North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular season and tournament champion, the No. 2 seed is Xavier and the No. 3 seed is West Virginia.

“Who we’re playing, those teams are, you know, we knew West Virginia would be there,” Calipari said. “Indiana, North Carolina and we got the toughest path.”

All of that is on the horizon, but first up is a Stony Brook squad (26-6) that has lost just two games since mid-December and took Vanderbilt to overtime in Nashville, Tenn.

“Stony Brook, I watched that game. They’re good. They’re good,” Coach Cal said. “They’ve got a big kid that had 40 points in a game against Vermont.”

That “big kid” is 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior forward Jameel Warney, and he actually had 43 points to go with his 10 rebounds and four blocks in Stony Brook’s America East Conference Tournament championship game. A finalist for the Karl Malone Award, given to the nation’s top power forward, Warney is a three-time America East Player of the Year. Averaging 19.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game, Warney has scored over 2,000 points and grabbed over 1,000 rebounds in his career.

“I’ve watched some of their games,” Marcus Lee said. “They’re a great team. We’re just excited to play them.”

The players did not appear to be upset with the Wildcats’ draw. In fact, after Kentucky’s name was announced the players didn’t have a reaction at all, with cameras actually catching SEC Tournament MVP Tyler Ulis dozing off to sleep.

“I’m just happy to be in the tournament,” Lee said. “That’s how you gotta look at it, as a blessing to just be in the tournament and be able to have fun with it.”

“We’re going to have to play them at some point, so might as well play them, get it out of the way,” Alex Poythress said. “Try not to look at any games ahead. Try to take it one game at a time. When you look ahead, that’s when you get beat.”

Among the concerns for Kentucky is a quick turnaround.

After playing three games in as many days, the team will “get together to do something” on Monday, Coach Cal said, before hitting the road for Des Moines on Tuesday to get set for Thursday night’s matchup.

“Let’s leave today,” Calipari joked. “Let’s leave right now and we’ll play it all on I-95. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I mean, we’ve been battle tested like this before where we had to have a quick turnaround,” Lee said. “We’ve had this multiple times in a season, so I think we’ll be ready and totally fine with it.”

Kentucky’s road may be a difficult one, but after winning five straight games it appears that the Wildcats are in the best position they’ve been in all season to handle it.

Ulis and Murray were each named to the SEC All-Tournament Team after Ulis averaged 24.0 points and 5.0 assists in the league tournament, and Murray logged 22.0 points and 4.7 rebounds. 

Freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe added 8.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in Nashville, and Poythress has now reached double figures in scoring in five straight games, including an average of 13.3 points at Bridgestone Arena.

“We’re playing great, so we have confidence in each other,” Poythress said. “We’re not scared of anybody we gotta play or anything like that. We feel confident in our ability and what we need to do to get there.”